ST. CLOUD — For students looking to get an idea of what it's like to serve and protect, the Law Enforcement Explorer program at the Stearns County Sheriff's Office is a great opportunity to see if wearing a badge would be a good career fit.
Sgt. Steve Soyka and Deputy Eric Schultz started out in the Explorer program and now work for the Stearns County Sheriff's Office. Both serve as advisers for the program and say that being an Explorer helped prepare them for their careers in law enforcement.
"For me, personally, I was an Explorer and the program helped me decide where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do," Soyka said. "I didn't know if I wanted to be a lawyer or a cop, but after I rode along I knew I wanted to be a cop."
From learning the basics of report writing and search protocol to response tactics for burglaries and traffic stops, Explorers get a taste of the daily work of law enforcement. And it's not just patrol jobs — Explorers also get to learn about dispatch and corrections careers.
"We try to get them to see the other side of it, not just from the squad car," Soyka said. "It gets them immersed in the whole profession, basically."
As part of the Times' career development project called Spark: Igniting Your Future, Soyka and Schultz discussed their careers with the Stearns County Sheriff's Office and how a volunteer-run educational program is helping increase interest in law enforcement careers. Spark focuses on STEM-related careers and takes a closer look at in-demand careers that don't require a four-year degree.
Law Enforcement Explorers programs are available across the country as an affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America. Boys and girls between the ages of 15-21 can apply to the program by calling the sheriff's office.
The Stearns County Sheriff's Office has hosted an Explorers program since 1976, Soyka said. He estimates the program has helped propel roughly 400 students into law enforcement careers over the past 40-plus years. More than a dozen former Explorers are employed at the sheriff's office, he said.
Schultz said the Explorers program helped confirm he was on the right education and career track. The training and mentoring offered through the program helped him select and prepare for his schooling.
"When I first started (Explorers) I fell in love with it… it made me realize it was something I wanted to go into." Schultz said. "Then it just made things a lot easier during college because I knew a lot of the stuff I was learning out there. It was a huge head start."
Cole Thoma, a 17-year-old Junior at Rocori High School, and Brett Schramel, a 17-year-old sophomore at Tech High School, just finished their first year in the Explorers program. Both said they have always had an interest in law enforcement careers and that the Explorers program is reinforcing that interest.
Thoma said he first heard about the program after seeing one of his classmates riding in a local parade with the Stearns County Water Patrol unit.
"I was just kind of interested how she got into it," Thoma said. So he sent her a message asking about the program and decided to sign up.
Schramel had a similar experience. A deputy and an Explorer visited his career class at Tech High School and he was encouraged to join.
"I've always been interested in law enforcement," Schramel said. "It has been a very fun, productive year. I've learned immense amounts of not only what to do in different situations that we might be called upon, but also what's expected."
Their first year in the program focused on learning the basics of law enforcement. Now they are looking forward to helping a new class of Explorers as they enter their second year in the program.
"At first it was a little overwhelming," Thoma said. "The first couple of meetings are reading the bylaws and learning your 10-codes [radio shorthand], that was difficult. But once you got it, it was fun."
Even though Thoma and Schramel still have to complete high school, both are planning on enrolling in a post-secondary law enforcement program and continuing with the Explorers program.
"This is really good training because you start to learn the statutes, what's expected as a police officer, everything from dress to how you carry yourself in public," Thoma said. "You learn a lot of good values for law enforcement and life just in general."
Take the Tour: Learn more about law enforcement careers and the Explorer program at the Stearns County Sheriff's Office. Watch video of the tour at www.sctimes.com/spark.
Coming Monday: Professional Standards and Training Sergeant Shawn Widmer and Jail Sergeant Jody Weisser, both with the Stearn's County Sheriff's Office, share advice and insights into the career opportunities available in law enforcement in a Q&A session with the Times.
Online: Read all stories for Spark: Igniting Your Future at www.sctimes.com/spark.
FULL STORY: https://www.sctimes.com/story/news/local/2018/06/01/law-enforcement-student-program-shows-what-its-like/623724002/